A Dollar and a Dream

August 14th, 2017
A Dollar and a Dream

[Editor's Note: At 8:50 p.m. on August 14, at 7:12 a.m. on August 16 and at 12:49 p.m. on August 19, 2017, this story was edited for style, content and accuracy.

This is Part 3 of a three-part series.]

Lakewood retailer Herschel Herskowitz is a man on a mission.

He does not seek fame or fortune; he is rich in family and friends and well-known in his community.

Herskowitz instead pursues an elusive dream of improving his town for everyone that wants to enjoy it.

First on his agenda: construction of a children's museum where families can spend time together, learning from and sharing with each other.

For Herskowitz, the owner of Toys for Thought, the best medicine in the world is the smile on a child's face, laughing with delight at the world's wonders.

He wants to bring that experience to as many children as possible.

His mission won't be easy to accomplish.

He has competition.

For a dollar and a dream, many non-profit corporations also seek public property to develop for a good cause.

Last year, one of them was Chemed, a healthcare provider seeking to expand services to Lakewood's growing population at the southern end of town.

For a dollar and a dream, Chemed leased contaminated public property located on Block 1064 Lot 3, a wooded parcel undergoing remediation.

The dream became a nightmare.

Although most of the property, known by the name of its' former owner, Glenn J. Hagaman, is now certified clean, Block 1064 Lot 3 is not.

Years ago, the state Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) assigned the same I.D. number to all blocks and lots undergoing remediation on what is now public property acquired through foreclosure. As a result, Chemed could not begin developing the site for construction of a healthcare facility with the $1,000,000 Federal grant awarded for the project until every one of the contaminated blocks and lots was remediated.

For Chemed, constrained by the grant's time limitation, the clock is ticking.

Last month, Chemed officials took matters into their own hands and hired a tree removal contractor to expedite remediation of the remaining contaminated block and lot on the Hagaman Property.

On Monday morning, July 24, 2017, Lakewood resident Avraham Sharaby was alarmed to see a contractor cutting down most of the trees on the site.

He contacted acting Lakewood Zoning Officer Francine Siegel, who told Sharaby that she had not issued a permit for removal of trees on Block 1064 Lot 3.

Lakewood Planning Board Secretary Ally Morris, responding for comment to NJ News & Views after Sharaby reported the unperrmitted deforestation of Block 1064 Lot 3, said no applications had been filed or approvals granted for development of the site.

Sharaby also contacted Lakewood Mayor Raymond Coles, who responded by e-mail at 1:48 p.m. on Tuesday, July 25, 2017.

Coles said he learned about the deforestation early that morning. He also said he was waiting on answers as to exactly what happened and when.

"The township is considering leasing this property to Chemed to construct a health facility to serve the southern end of town," Coles told Sharaby. "In order to do this, the lot must be inspected by DEP & clean up needs to be assessed."

Coles misspoke.

On November 10, 2016, the Lakewood Township Committee did not just consider leasing Block 1064 Lot 3 to Chemed; one that date, members adopted a resolution to do so.

The resolution may not be binding.

Under state code, municipalities must adopt an ordinance on second reading, not a resolution, to lease public property to a non-profit organization for a public purpose. Only county governments may adopt a resolution for the same purpose, which does not require a public forum prior to a vote.

"Apparently there was a misunderstanding between our engineers, Remington & Vernick, and the prospective lease holder about how to gain access to the debris pile for this inspection," Coles told Sharaby.

According to e-mails exchanged between township engineer Jeffrey Staiger of Remington Vernick & Vena Engineers and Chemed Project Manager Shaya Brezak, there was no misunderstanding - Chemed contractors were trespassing on public property.

"There was a meeting to discuss what needs to be done, but no authorization or permission to conduct any work was given," Staiger told Brezak in a July 25, 2017 e-mail sent at 12:08 p.m. "Purportedly your contractor is clearing more than access to the pile of debris. Kindly contact your contractor and have them cease until these issues can be resolved."

Brezak apologized to Staiger for any inconvenience caused by his company's contractor in a July 25, 2017 e-mail copied to Lakewood Deputy Mayor Menashe Miller, a Chemed employee.

In an anonymous comment posted on Hefkervelt in response to the blog's report of NJ News & Views' first post of this story, a reader expressed curiosity as to what work Miller did for Chemed.

"What does Menashe Miller do (for) Chemed?" the reader asked at 8:18 p.m. on August 9, 2017. "I am just curious, other (than) his part time work as chaplain for the (national) guard, what is his area of expertise?"

Political influence.

According to a July 24, 2017 e-mail sent at 3:22 p.m., Site Remediation Program (SRP) Professional Douglas Shairer told Staiger that the deputy mayor had contacted him after discussing the debris pile with Chemed officials at an earlier date.

Miller reportedly asked Shairer if he could have someone cut the weeds and overgrowth on the site so the debris pile on it could more easily be examined.

Shairer responded to Miller's request by telling him there would be no problem as long as nobody touched the debris.

"We never spoke about anybody cutting trees or moving any of the debris," Shairer told Staiger. "they should not be touching the debris at all."

Too late.

On Wednesday afternoon, July 27, 2017, a reporter for NJ News visited the site and observed a mountain of mulch at the center of Block 1064 Lot 3, where trees used to stand. Only a fringe of trees remained around the perimeter of the fenced-off site.

The reporter returned to the site on July 31, 2017, and observed two men getting into a white pickup truck on the strip mall parking lot adjacent to Hagaman's Property. There was no identification on the vehicle as to its' commercial ownership.

The reporter approached the men and asked who they worked for.

The men said nothing.

The reporter asked them if they spoke English.

One of the men laughed and said, "Yes."

As the truck sped off, the reporter noted that the parked construction vehicles on the site did not display the required township permit to remove trees from the property under Lakewood's Protection of Trees Ordinance.

Brezak blamed Remington Vernick & Vena engineers for his misinterpretation of their discussion with Miller.

"Our understanding was that we are following Remington Vernick's directions on behalf of the township and the DEP in order to try and find out what's actually on the property and what has to be done in terms of clearing and/or remediating the lot, therefore not needing any special township licenses," Brezak told Staiger. "I am working with Mr. Secare to correct that."

Steven Secare is Lakewood's township attorney.

"We did hire a private tree removal service to do the work and a service agreement was signed with them," Brezak told Staiger. "CHEMED will pay for this service in full."

No, taxpayers will, according to Coles.

"Mayor Coles called me yesterday and told me that after checking into it he found out that since we leased the property from the township, we really didn't need any license or permits from the township for taking down the trees since we didn't disturb the debris pile," Brezak told Staiger in a July 28, 2017 e-mail sent at 10:55 a.m. "All we need is a soils permit which I'm working to obtain as soon as possible."

Township officials provided Brezak with a NJDEP Receptor Evaluation Form soils report prepared by Remington Vernick & Vena five years ago and signed on February 14, 2012 by Lakewood Municipal Manager Michael Musillo.

Thomas L. Henshaw is the current Lakewood municipal manager.

In a July 26, 2017 e-mail Staiger sent Coles, Staiger indicated that just because Secare prepared a license agreement permitting Chemed to remove trees on the site after the fact, county officials might not take the same lenient view of the healthcare provider's action.

"We instructed Shaya to hire an engineer to obtain an Ocean County Soils Conservation District Approval, before they start to issue fines," Staiger told Coles.

Staiger, who copied Brezak, Henshaw, Shairer and Remington Vernick & Vena (RVV) engineer Terry Vogt on the e-mail to Coles, indicated that the requirements for site remediation are expensive and time-consuming.

"We would need a certificate of insurance indemnifying the Township of Lakewood and RVV," Staiger told Coles. "Once we have these items along with the agreement then he can install the soil erosion and sediment control measures, then he can start to screen and test the debris and remove the waste to an approved site. Shaya indicated he will be in contact with Doug and myself the entire process to avoid a recurrence of yesterday. After the waste is removed, the soils from the debris pile will need to be tested as well as the underlying soils. Should the test show that the soils are ok, they would be treated as normal fill. If there are issues with the soil it would need to (be) disposed of at an approved site."

Staiger concluded his e-mail by inviting anyone copied on it that had any questions or needed additional information to let him know.

There are thousands of Lakewood residents that may want to take Staiger up on his offer.

One of them has an offer of his own for five other public officials that sit on the Lakewood Township Committee.

In New Jersey's fastest-growing municipality, a dollar and a dream can buy you public land.

Herskowitz is prepared to up that ante.

In an August 10, 2017 comment posted on the Hefkervelt blog in response to reading a link to an NJ News & Views report posted on August 7, 2017, Herskowitz made Lakewood Township an offer he thought committeemen couldn't refuse:

"Dear Township Committee,

I am the owner of Toys For Thought. We have been providing a full array of therapy toys to specialists in all fields that work with special needs children for over 16 years. We can provide letters of praise from parents, therapists and charity organizations.
 
Of course we charge for these toys but we provide them at a discount and very often donate toys to organizations that deal with children in need. We have been looking for a location to provide our services on the south side of town. We think this location would be perfect for our new location. Unfortunately it is not economically feasible to open a second location if we would need to pay a large amount of money for a property. But we are capable of paying double the amount of the organization that you made a backdoor deal with. We can pay TWO dollars all in cash immediately for the property and we are willing to keep our company as a for profit and pay property taxes in the future. We are not just a toy store . We are a healthcare provider as well and we don't charge as much to bring smiles to children and parents. 

Please consider our request."

Herskowitz repeated his $2.00 offer at the August 10, 2017 meeting of the Lakewood Township Committee.

There were no takers on the dais.

A reporter for NJ News & Views also addressed committeemen during the meeting's public forum.

The reporter asked Mayor Raymond Coles a question related to the July 25, 2017 e-mails he exchanged with Lakewood resident Avraham Sharaby, who reported that Chemed had cut down the trees on Hagaman's Property without a permit.

The reporter asked Coles why he told his constituent in the e-mails that the township committee was considering a lease of the Hagaman Property to Chemed, when the committee already voted to approve a lease to Chemed on November 10, 2016.

"It was a mistake," Coles said.

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